Rejuvenating a Legacy: Bologna’s L’Immagine Ritrovata brings cinema treasures back to life


The Fondazione Cineteca of Bologna represents one of the most prominent film library and restoration labs in the world. Working closely with international museums like New York’s Museum of Modern Art and foundations like the Scorsese Foundation, their branch L’Immagine Ritrovata specializes in restoring and bringing back to life films that have lost color, audio, frames, and sometimes are just impossible to watch due to the damaged condition of the print. The lab uses state-of-the art equipment that permits their team to work on projects ranging from 4K to photochemical.

Stepping inside L’Immagine Ritrovata in the heart of the medieval city of Bologna feels like entering a high-tech office in Silicon Valley, aside from the fact that the building is surrounded by monuments and antique palaces. Proceeding through the individual labs, each one specialized for its precise duty, from scanning to color correction to cleaning, I had to step on a white, sticky doormat that retains dust your shoes can collect from the “outside world.” Dust poses a particular hazard to the meticulous job of the experts working on celluloid.

When the director of the lab, Davide Pozzi, told me that one of their toughest jobs was to restore the original ten-second films of the Lumière brothers, I immediately decided I had to learn more about the process, and how even contemporary films we see in theatres sometimes go through a restoration journey, bringing back something that was lost or damaged during shooting or transferring.

Foundations, private individuals, museums, distribution companies and major studios send old or ruined 16mm or 35mm films to the L’Immagine lab. Here the process begins in the Repairs Department, where the negative is scrupulously examined in every aspect, from the perforations to the splices, and it’s fixed in order to sustain a proper scanning of the film. The tools employed by the artisans are like those of a surgeon: scalpels, forceps, solvents, scissors, all used alongside traditional film editing tools like splicing tape and glue, to repair breakages, stains or tears. The negative is cleaned by hand, to render the scanning process as smooth as possible. The two key goals of the repair process are to find the proper balance of mechanical functionality and to preserve the aesthetic of the film stock as authentically as possible. At the end of the process, two reports are created, one for the client and one for the lab, eachdescribing with photos, notes and data all the work that needs to be done to the film, frame by frame.

In the repairs lab, I assisted in the unique process of disentangling films that have been almost destroyed or have barely survived but are in terrible condition. Some of them can’t be unraveled without the risk of breaking, while others are too dry or too damp. So, they are put under domes of glass and exposed either to nitrate or acetate, and camphor too, and then are checked daily to evaluate whether they can sustain the cleaning process or not.

The next step is the “washing machine.” The more each film is cleaned, the less digital work is required in its restoration. Ultrasound is used to cleanse the film, with the negative run through a system of automatic sponges containing HFE (Ethyl nonafluorobutyl ether) before it’s finally dried with a powerful air stream.

Now the film is ready for scanning. The Arriscan motion picture film scanner can scan 16 and 35mm diacetate or triacetate film stocks in even their worst conditions, down to one frame per second. For some films, either in black-and-white or in color, scanning requires using the Arriscan wetgate, which removes dirt, mold and lines, and prevents scratches during the scanning; this wetgate process reduces the digital cleaning time and affects the costs and delivery of the final product.

Arriscan scanners allow the lab's team to regulate stretching of the running reel in two modes: “normal” and “soft.” Using a sprocket-less system, the machine recognizes the frame size to be scanned and maintains it throughout the film scan. Also, the perforations of the film are scanned to create a digital reference to aid in stabilizing the image once it has been restored. If the films are particularly shriveled, in order not to lose missing frames or cause looping, the sprocket-less mode allows the film to run without unloading and reloading the reel.

Thanks to Arriscan, a number of restorations that before necessarily followed the traditional photochemical chain can be carried out today directly by scanning the original film and skipping the analog duplication, for unequaled sharper results. Arriscan is extremely accurate in handling materials that can be very fragile and it covers the whole latitude of print film. In a worst-case scenario, Arriscan can scan single frames and can thus handle damaged film and scan the entire film print.

In the case of missing frames, the lab technician uses the frame before and after the one missing to reconstruct it digitally, careful not to create some form or artifact that doesn’t belong to the time and style of the film. If the film’s director of photography or the director is still alive, they are called in to consult on the cinematography of the print in order to recreate it as closely as possible.

The audio is treated in similarly painstaking fashion once it’s transferred into digital from the negative or the positive, by scanning any optical negative format at high definition using the Sondor OMA/E digital acquisition system equipped with COPS xi2K technology. This technology allows audio technicians to manipulate pitches in chromatic scale in real time, and to read part of the tracks that were unreadable up to now. Finishing the audio with the Avid/Digidesign ProTools HD system assures a keen compatibility with any other equipment internationally.

The last stage of the restoration process is color correction, when image artists, after doing thorough research and experimentation, retouch and repair every shade of color missing. They pay particularly close attention to revitalizing hues and nuances without interfering with the original photochemical techniques. Doing the job digitally, the specialists even can reconstruct images that are dull and deteriorated.

Digital restoration technicians work with three different software packages for cleaning and retouching: Revival by Black Magic, Phoenix by Image System, and Diamant by HS Art. These programs can be used together to balance one another, or separately according to the needs of the job required. They can correct everything from flickering problems to visual noise and lines, while also eliminating dirt and scratches, and reducing the appearance of film grain. The specialists have the capability to work manually and automatically in order to wield full control over the frame correction.

Included in the process are two types of color corrections: for primary colors (adjusted by modifying contrast, luminosity, color and saturation), and secondary colors (usually of specific elements within the image).The lab uses Digital Vision's Nocuda Film Master software and a CINEO35 2.5K digital projector from Projection Design to ensure the most precise color quality.

The final product is output as a DCP file for screening purposes, although an optical print in black-and-white (even if the film is in color) also is created, as black-and-white prints are more resistant to the ravages of time and normal deterioration. This step follows a careful QC (quality check) that avoids any human error on the final reel; then at last the DCP is tested in a screening room using a Christie CP2210 projector and a Doremi DCP2000 server.

It’s very important in this job, as mentioned to me by the lab's director and a few specialists, to not alter the frame, the image or the style of the film, but just to reconstruct it. The work of restoring varies from one to 16 months, and the price of the job depends on what needs to be done; for a 2K digital output, it can cost an average of 60,000 euros and for a 4K about 100,000 euros. As I was told by my guide, there’s plenty of work for L'Immagine Ritrovata for the coming years, and film restoration has proved to be a profitable business despite what most people in this video age might think about old or damaged film prints. For 30 years now, the Cineteca also has organized its signature film festival called “Cinema Ritrovato,” where audiences are treated to big-screen presentations of movies that have been restored by the L'Immagine lab and others, an excellent idea to give classic movies a second and third life. Among the many films restored by the lab are the entire Chaplin collection from 1914, the Buster Keaton collection, De Sica’s Umberto D., Fellini’s Amarcord, Visconti’s The Leopard, Bertolucci’s The Conformist, Rossellini’s Roma, Open City, John Huston’s Beat the Devil and many other masterpieces.